Worry

Why do we worry?

In some ways, the answer to this question could be: because we are human. Our powerful brains are problem-solving machines, always working away at the difficulties we face and trying to help us resolve them. This is a good thing, helping us find our path through life's many challenges; making us protective, thoughtful parents; solving problems at work, with our finances or in our love life. When thinking about why we worry, this is an important place to start – worry, per se, is not a bad thing.

What is less helpful is when we worry to excess, spending hours a day fretting about every aspect of our life. Or when that worry comes at 3am, keeping us from precious sleep while we chew over problems best left till the morning. And worry is especially unhelpful when it makes daily life unbearable, because we are so caught up in anxious, obsessional thinking about everything we do or say – and particularly about the myriad ways in which things that are important to us might go wrong.

In cognitive therapy, this is known as 'catastrophising' – when we constantly jump to the worst-case scenario, assuming that things will always turn out badly. Catastrophising is an unhelpful thinking style associated with every kind of anxiety problem (which makes sense when you understand the anxiety formula, explained in this post). It is also a feature of depression, as depressive thinking is overwhelmingly negative, so we always assume things will go badly for us.

Chronic worry is particularly associated with generalised anxiety disorder, which can make life very upsetting and difficult for people – but is treatable with cognitive therapy. One of the first things I do with my worried clients is to explain the difference between productive and unproductive worry. Unproductive worry is when we 'ruminate' about our problems, anxious thoughts going round and round in our head without finding any helpful answers or solutions. Productive worry is when we engage in focused problem-solving that leads to constructive solutions.

If you have a problem with worry, try this simple CBT technique today:

Take a worry break

If you are engaging in unproductive worry – for example lying awake fretting about your daughter's disappointing GCSE results at 3am – tell yourself firmly that you will take a 'worry break' the next day when you can think about this problem as much as you want.

Then get up (briefly – you are already awake!), find a half-hour slot in the following day and write Worry Break in your diary. Then follow these two simple rules:

1) In order to reward yourself with this break, you're not allowed to worry about your daughter until then. If your mind wanders to that subject (as it probably will), tell yourself firmly 'I am not going to think about this now, because I will focus on the problem tomorrow.'

2) During the worry break, your worrying must be productive. That means you have to come up with some solutions to your daughter's problems, not just fret about them. If you are struggling to come up with solutions, try talking it over with a trusted friend or family member – it's often easier for other people to think rationally about our problems, as they are not so emotionally charged for them.

If you stick to this regularly, you will find your upsetting, unproductive worrying reduces significantly. And if you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

What are anxiety disorders?

What are anxiety disorders?

In either cognitive or schema therapy we first try to understand exactly what is causing someone’s problems, before going on to help solve them. If someone is struggling with anxiety, part of this understanding is making a diagnosis of exactly which ‘anxiety disorder’ someone is struggling with. Some people find this idea a little uncomfortable, but it’s just like your GP diagnosing whether you have the common cold or flu, so they can prescribe the right treatment.

There are seven anxiety disorders, which I summarise briefly below – map your symptoms on to the disorder to see whether you might have one. If you are unsure, please get an assessment from a cognitive or schema therapist; and remember that it’s common to suffer from more than one of these disorders at the same time, as well as other problems like depression or low self-esteem.

Panic disorder and agoraphobia
A panic attack involves a sudden increase in anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart rate, breathlessness or dizziness. Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks and may or may not lead to agoraphobia – anxiety about being in situations in which escape would be embarrassing or help would not be available in the case of a panic attack. People with agoraphobia may struggle to leave the house or be in open or public places, like shopping centres.

Health anxiety
Health anxiety (also called ‘hypochondriasis’) involves a fear of having a serious illness, like cancer or heart disease, and a preoccupation with bodily symptoms. The problem will not go away with medical reassurance and is often extremely distressing – you may be convinced you have a serious health problem but that no-one believes you, which is understandably frustrating and upsetting.

Social phobia
People with social phobia have a fear of social or performance situations, or both; you may feel comfortable with one trusted friend, but become anxious if their friend joins you. You might be fine in small groups, but the bigger the group the more your anxiety grows. And you might struggle in performance situations, like public speaking or university seminars – you may hate being put on the spot or have the feeling that everyone can see how anxious you are and will think badly of you in some way.

Specific phobia
This involves the persistent fear of a particular object of situation – it’s ‘specific’ because you fear that and not a wide range of things. The most common phobias are a fear of heights, public speaking, snakes, spiders, being in enclosed spaces, mice, needles and injections, crowds, clowns, darkness and dogs. Of course, some people struggle with more than one phobia. And it’s worth noting that specific phobias are relatively easy to treat with CBT – in around six sessions or less.

Generalised anxiety disorder
GAD is defined as excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not for a period of at least six months and about a number of events or activities. The two key features of this disorder are ‘free-floating’ anxiety, which attaches itself to one thing after another; and persistent worry, which is more severe than normal worry, seems hard to control and causes distress and/or makes it difficult to function.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
If you are suffering from OCD, you will experience obsessions (intrusive images, impulses or thoughts) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviours engaged in to minimise the anxiety or upset caused by the obsessional thought or because of rigid rules). Although the compulsion – which could involve checking, washing, prayers or replacing negative thoughts/images with positive ones – is intended to reduce distress or prevent a feared outcome, like someone you love being harmed. Unfortunately, the compulsion only provides short-term relief and is a key element of what maintains the OCD.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs as a reaction to a profoundly distressing event that threatened death or serious injury to yourself or other people; a response that involved intense fear, helplessness or horror; and key symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal. There is some debate over whether PTSD is an anxiety or stress/trauma disorder, but as it does involve very high levels of anxiety, I have included it here.

If you think you might have an anxiety disorder and would like to arrange a session, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Excellent self-help book on worry

I am always keen to promote the best sources of information to help people gain insight into their problems, because without insight into what is making us unhappy, we cannot hope to overcome it. I'm currently reading Dr Robert L Leahy's The Worry Cure: Stop Worrying and Start Living – one of the best self-help books I have read for a long time. Dr Leahy is one of the world's pre-eminent cognitive therapists and condenses 25 years of clinical experience into this informative and highly readable book.

As I often tell my clients, there is nothing wrong with worry per se – it is a normal and even helpful cognitive strategy for thinking about and solving problems. But, as Dr Leahy so eloquently explains, for some of us worry can be both excessive and distressing. Chronic worry is associated with a wide range of psychological problems, from depression to anxiety disorders including OCD, health anxiety, social phobia and especially generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), in which persistent worry is one of the distinctive features.

The Worry Cure explains why some of us worry more than others; offers a range of questionnaires and other diagnostic tools to help you understand what your 'worry profile' is; and, crucially, provides a wealth of tips and techniques to help you reduce your worry and learn to confront the problems that unhelpful worry actually stops you solving.

One of the paradoxical things about worry is that it can be a way of avoiding actually solving your problems. Although you may spend many hours fretting about them, which gives the illusion of control and makes you think you are tackling them, it can actually get in the way of confronting problems head-on; separating the things you can control from those you cannot; coming up with solutions to those problems and taking action to actually solve them, not just spend fruitless hours worrying about them.

So do buy the book – and if you want help with chronic worry, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan